HUGO, OK (KAUZ) - It's a species that's seen a 50 percent loss in population in the past three generations, but one Oklahoma non-profit is working to not only protect, but re-grow the population of endangered Asian Elephants.
It's called Endangered Ark. It's located in Hugo, in the far southeastern part of the state. It serves as a sanctuary for retired Asian elephants, some of which are former circus animals. While there, the creatures live a life of peace while receiving some of the top medical care around.
For more than 20 years, The Endangered Ark Foundation served as a private sanctuary for Asian elephants, but last year they began offering public tours.
"This is a one of a kind facility," said Endangered Ark Foundation Director Arlinda Copeland. "We open our doors to give people an opportunity to look an elephant in the eye, touch them, pet them, hand feed them, and really have a personal encounter, an intimate encounter with our residents here."
Past the gates and down the dirt path, visitors will get their first encounter with these majestic creatures at the Endangered Ark Foundation, founded in Hugo, Oklahoma.
"We have our newest little addition to our family here behind me, this is Dory Marie, she was born two years ago this July," Copeland said. "She was born to her mother, Wimpy, she's our newest addition. She's our sixth birth here."
First on the visit, a brief history lesson with Copeland and a quick look at how the staff keeps their residents happy and healthy.
Endangered Ark houses 11 Asian Elephants, ranging in age from 2 years old to 68 years old.
Those elephants are all either retired performers with the Carson and Barnes Circus, or the children of those elephants. The Carson and Barnes circus actually calls Hugo home, so when the elephants were retired, they simply stayed where they had lived for their entire lives.
Each elephant gets a weekly pedicure, and has a daily bath time
"They have the life of leisure," Copeland said. "We call Endangered Ark the spa for elephants because we love to pamper them."
While it's a lot of fun and games at Endangered Ark, in other parts of the world, Asian elephants are in trouble.
"There's only approximately 500 elephants in North America and unfortunately there's been that many perish in their native range country since we did a tour a week ago," Copeland said. "It's really important as a whole that we focus on breeding programs or they will all age out and we will not have them to look at and gave in their eyes and fall in love with."
Ben Hutchinson started working at Endangered Ark when he was just 19 years old. After 22 years on the job, there's not much he doesn't know about these animals. He said they aren't much different from us.
"They actually have their own personalities," Hutchinson said. "Elephants are very unique, they're a lot like people. Each one has their own unique personality. They share things and actually communicate with you in their own ways, due to the fact that they have their own personalities."
After the educational portion of the tour, you get to do something truly spectacular. You actually get to feed the animals and fall even more in love as you look them in the eye.
That is when the tour gets really personal. One-by-one visitors greet their new friends and even get the chance to take a selfie.
Copeland said to their knowledge, there isn't another place in North America that offers this type of experience. She hopes these tours are only the beginning.
"Our hope is to have an educational center that we can facilitate opportunities for young children and adults to learn more about the species and our efforts in preserving the endangered elephant," Copeland said.
Copeland estimates that education center will cost more than $10,000. It will likely have to come from a generous donor. As it is now, every dollar they get from tours goes right back to the elephants' care. It costs the center $418,000 dollars every year. That's about $38,000 dollars per elephant.
"There's a lot that goes into caring for these elephants, they're beautiful, majestic creatures," Copeland said. "It is very expensive to care for them. They have vet bills, feed bills, the staff and the care that we put into their everyday needs comes with a price tag."
Whether you're an elephant fanatic or not, you'll never find another place like this in the world.
"This facility to me is everything. I met my wife here, this place is responsible for me meeting my wife, having my kid. I mean, I learned a lot about life from working here. Working with elephants. I mean this place is basically who I am. It's who I am and pretty much the reason for everything I have," Hutchinson said.
Copeland said it's about time that this elephant-sized secret is out of the bag.
"The Endangered Ark foundation is the best-kept secret in Oklahoma," Copeland said. "We want to spread the word and let others know we are here."
Public tours are available Fridays and Saturdays for $30. If you'd like an even more exclusive experience, you can schedule a private tour.
For more information on tours or how you can contribute to the Endangered Ark, you can go here.